It Was the BBC's Mindset, Not Its Incompetence, That Sunk Newsnight

21/12/2012 14:00 GMT | Updated 19/02/2013 10:12 GMT

It's no accident that it was Newsnight that played host to the BBC's current and perhaps most fateful car-crash yet. The performance of this now little watched late-night take on the affairs of the day has become a key indicator of the corporation's commitment to its supposed purpose. Its implosion shows us exactly how the BBC lost its way.

Few things could be more central to the purpose of a public service broadcaster than its efforts to make sense of the news. Once, programmes like Panorama fulfilled this function with aplomb. However, in 1985 Panorama was ejected from its peak-time slot; the price of its return in 2007 was a slashed running-time and a populist agenda. Since then, those seeking serious insight into public affairs from the BBC have had to stay up late and tune into its minority channel.

It might have been thought that if such a key activity was to be relegated to the margins of the schedule, it would at least have been compensated with the attention and resources that this function was bound to require. But no.

Newsnight's budget is believed to have been cut from around £10m in the mid-1990s to little more than £5m today. Three years ago there was a cut of 20%; more cuts made as part of the amusingly entitled 'Delivering Quality First' programme took out three of the remaining reporter posts. Last year, the now stepped-back-again director of news, Helen Boaden, made one of her rare visits to address the programme team. Rather than reassuring them that their ability to pursue their core purpose would be restored, she told them that they'd got to increase their ratings.

In spite of the cuts, Newsnight continued to provide some of the best reporting of economic, diplomatic, social and scientific affairs to be found anywhere on television, even though its studio content suffered. However, its dedicated team for in-depth projects had to be disbanded.

As the former editor of a news analysis show myself, I know how draining investigative journalism can be in both resources and attention. Perhaps part of the reason why Newsnight felt compelled to stay in this business as its budget was squeezed was the hope that sensational revelations would provide the boost to its ratings that was being demanded of it.

Just why a programme like Newsnight should have been treated in this way by an organisation that likes to see itself as the world's leading public service broadcaster may seem puzzling. Of course the BBC has to make cuts, but it still pulls in over £5bn a year. Newsnight is thought to consume a mere £5m of that, and might have expected protection at the expense of vastly more expensive but less obviously central output.

Yet entrenched management attitudes meant that the programme's grim fate was a foregone conclusion. The fact is that the BBC has not been primarily concerned with informing the public. It has had a higher purpose: to secure and promote its own corporate empire.

For decades, managerial groupthink has revolved around one central proposition. The BBC must be as big as possible. This will require as big a licence fee as can be extracted from viewers. To ensure public willingness to pay, audience size must be maximised. That means popularity, not public service, is the overriding objective.

It was this thinking that led the BBC to latch on to Jimmy Savile in the first place. For Newsnight it meant not only starvation of resources but a lack of interest in the programme's mission from the corporation's top brass. No one cared enough about the current affairs flagship to keep it on the rails. Corporate priorities lay elsewhere.

It's this cancer at the heart of the BBC's functioning, that its new leader must root out if he's to save it from itself. A critical indication of his success or otherwise will be the future condition and performance of Newsnight.